Historically, women have been accustomed to learning about STDs, birth control, and the more common complications of the female reproductive system, but what about cancer? With that special set of reproductive organs, those born with them are vulnerable to a set of gynecologic cancers. To help you feel informed and confident about your risk and the signs of such diseases, we’re going to break down what gynecologic cancer is and what to look out for.

The Female Reproductive System and Common Cancers

The complete female reproductive system consists of the following major organs: the vagina, vulva, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. As with any part of the human body, these organs can be vulnerable to developing cancer over their lifetime. There are a variety of symptoms, risk factors, and risk reducers for each type of gynecologic cancer that are important to know about. This knowledge paired with listening to your body and what’s normal for you will be instrumental in catching any of these cancers early. Let’s break them down.

Facts About Uterine Cancer

Uterine cancer (cancer of the lining of the uterus), also known as endometrial cancer, is the most common gynecologic cancer and is mostly found in women going through or who have gone through menopause. There is a rarer type of uterine cancer called sarcoma which is of the muscle wall of the uterus. With that being said, 3 out of 4 women are diagnosed at Stage 1 and 85% of them survive due to early detection.

Symptoms Risk factors Risk reducers
Abnormal vaginal bleeding Taking estrogen alone without progesterone Keep blood pressure and blood sugar under control
Bleeding after menopause Obesity Maintain a healthy weight
Water discharge Late menopause (after 55 years old) Using birth control pills or medications that help regular shedding of the uterine lining
Diabetes Taking progesterone with estrogen hormones during menopause
Use of tamoxifen (hormonal therapy, often used for the treatment of breast cancer)
Family history of cancer

Facts about Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is the only gynecologic cancer with a recommended screening test. You’ve probably been screened for this at least once in your life and will hopefully continue to get tested on a regular basis during your annual exams. This screening test is known as the Pap Smear test.

Most cervical cancers can be prevented with vaccinations like Gardasil that prevent the transmission of the human papillomavirus (HPV), Pap tests, and HPV testing. Cervical cancer is highly curable when found and treated early.

Symptoms Risk factors Risk reducers
Bleeding after intercourse Persistent infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) Getting the HPV vaccine (currently approved up to the age of 45)
Excessive discharge or abnormal bleeding between periods Smoking Having regular Pap tests and HPV screening at the intervals recommended by your health care provider
Vaginal odor Unprotected sex with multiple partners Don’t smoke
Anything that alters your immune system Use condoms
Limit your number of sexual partners

Facts about Ovarian and Fallopian Tube Cancer

Ovarian and fallopian tube cancer can be hard to find in their earliest stages since there is no simple or reliable test for detection. Because of this, you really need to rely on the knowledge of symptoms and taking the proper steps if you experience any of them. Fallopian cancer is extremely rare and accounts for only 1-2% of all gynecologic cancers and only 15% of ovarian cancer is found in the earliest stage.

Symptoms Risk factors Risk reducers
Bloating Being middle-aged or older for the more common forms of ovarian cancer Use of oral contraceptives (or anything that stops ovulation)
Urinary symptoms like urgency or frequency Family history of ovarian or fallopian tube cancer Understand your risk and listen to your body for symptoms
Pelvic or abdominal pain Having an Eastern European Jewish background Some studies show that breastfeeding for over a year may reduce your risk
Back pain Never giving birth or having trouble getting pregnant Tubal ligation
Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly Having endometriosis
Abnormal discharge or bleeding

Facts about Vaginal and Vulvar Cancer

Vaginal and vulvar cancer are rare forms of cancer, accounting for about 6-7% of all gynecologic cancers diagnosed each year. These cancers are associated with HPV and routine wellness visits and cervical cancer screenings can sometimes find early signs of invasive vaginal cancer. They also have fairly detectable signs, unlike the other gynecologic cancers we’ve gone over thus far.

Symptoms Risk factors Risk reducers
Unusual bleeding or discharge Having HPV Getting the HPV vaccine
Bleeding after sex Smoking Get regular Pap tests and HPV screenings at the intervals recommended by your health care provider
Presence of a lump or mass in the vulva Having ongoing vulvar itching or burning Don’t smoke
Chronic vaginal or vulvar itching Having had cervical precancer or cancer Use condoms
Open sores Having an autoimmune disease Limit your number of sexual partners
Skin changes on your vulva

Knowledge is Power for Cancer Detection and Prevention

More than 91,000 gynecologic cancer diagnoses are made each year in the United States. Knowing the symptoms and taking note of changes in your body is essential to catching cancer early, which can lead to better outcomes. If any of the information we presented raises questions for you, introduces you to symptoms that you have been experiencing, or leads you to believe you are at high risk for any of these cancers, please make an appointment with your health care provider so they can properly assess and treat you as necessary.